If there was a prize for the most beautiful country in the world, New Zealand would be a strong contender. There are so many stunningly beautiful places in New Zealand, planning a trip there can be tricky – it’s hard to know which places to pick!
Although, sadly, it looks like the country’s borders will remain closed for the foreseeable future, I thought I’d write a summary of my top 9 favourite and most beautiful places in New Zealand.
I hope this whets your travel appetite (damn, I miss travelling), and inspires you to visit this ridiculously beautiful country in the future.
Beautiful Places In New Zealand: North Island
The Bay of Islands
Hidden away near the very top of the North Island is a subtropical paradise.
More than 140 islands are dotted in and around the large bay formed between Cape Brett and the Purerua Peninsula. Here you’ll find untouched, golden sandy beaches, mangroves, walking trails, and an abundance of local wildlife.
The warm, sheltered waters of the bay are perfect for swimming, sailing, and sea kayaking. Whales and dolphins are frequent visitors, and you can take boat trips to see these amazing animals up close.
The pretty little towns around the bay – Paihia, Russell and Waitangi – are historically significant, and culturally important to the Māori people.
The Treaty House in Waitangi has been the site of many important events, including the signing of the Declaration of Independence of New Zealand in 1835, and the Treaty of Waitangi (which established the modern day country) in 1840.
Despite being a popular holiday destination, the Bay of Islands feels authentic and unspoilt. It’s easy to escape the crowds and find your own secluded slice of paradise.
If you have your own car, from here it’s only an hours drive further northwest to Ninety Mile Beach. This incredible stretch of wild, untouched coast is one of the longest beaches in the world.
Tongariro National Park
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is often described as the best one day hike – or ‘tramp’ – in New Zealand, and one of the best in the world.
This 19.4 kilometre trek in the Tongariro National Park, not far from Taupō, traverses several active volcanoes, passing through some of the most stunning and unique landscapes I have ever seen.
The route is fairly challenging (moderate fitness required), with almost no shade and several steep sections. The path varies from easy boardwalks and solid steps in parts, to dusty ash and volcanic fragments. But the views more than make up for it.
Mount Ngauruhoe – the almost perfectly conical volcano which is one of NZ’s most active – dominates much of the trek. You may also recognise it as Mount Doom from the Lord of the Rings films. Climbing up the slopes of this awesome mountain, the path crosses lava flows, old and new, and there is evidence of volcanic activity everywhere.
Some of the craters you pass look like the surface of another planet. Bizarre, colourful formations are everywhere, formed by magma and minerals forced up through the ground.
Towards the end of the walk, the path drops back down into rainforest with lush plants, trees and beautiful birdcall. A total contrast to the dry, barren, lunar landscape you’ve just left.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a seriously epic day hike.
A handy network of shuttle buses also provides transport to the start point, and back from the finish, making it super easy to plan the trip.
Keep an eye out for the local weather forecast, wear decent hiking shoes, and bring lots of water and sunscreen!
Te Puia Thermal Reserve (Rotorua)
The Māori village of Whakarewarewa, on the edge of the town of Rotorua, is built on one of the thinnest parts of the Earth’s crust found anywhere in the world.
As a result, it’s one of the most active geothermal sites in New Zealand.
Although also a tourist destination, the village is home to several Māori families who live surrounded by the boiling hot springs, mud pools and geysers.
The villagers use some of these amazing geothermal features in their daily lives. They channel water from the pools into outdoor baths – minerals in the water are good for the skin and have supposed healing properties. Ovens are also built over steam vents, which form pressure cookers.
Pōhutu is the largest active geyser in the Southern Hemisphere, and erupts once or twice every hour. Boiling water is shot 30 metres into the air, where it turns instantly to steam.
In places, the ground is hot to the touch. Sometimes houses have to be evacuated as new geysers erupt from cracks, which can appear overnight. It’s awesome to feel the power of nature at work in this place.
In the town of Rotorua itself, Kuirau Park also has many thermal features, such as bubbling mud pools and steaming vents in the ground. It’s free to explore, and is a perfect place for a picnic.
The Redwood Forest Tree Walk is also well worth a visit. This 700 metre long walkway is made up of a series of suspension bridges high above the forest floor. It’s a magical and unique way to get up close to the 120-year-old giant redwood trees. For more information, check out this post over on 4 Degrees Of Destination.
Beautiful Places In New Zealand: South Island
Kaikōura is a small seaside town on the north-east coast of the South Island. This former whaling station is today one of the best places in the world for whale watching.
Warm and cool water mix together in a deep oceanic trench just off the coast, which causes an upwards current rich in plankton and fish. Whales flock here to feed.
Sperm whales, which feed mainly on giant squid and small sharks, are year-round residents here. These amazing animals are massive (up to 16 metres long), can dive down to depths more than a kilometre below the surface, and hold their breath for up to 45 minutes.
Whale Watch Kaikōura organises fantastic tours in high-tech boats, using sonar to detect the whales’ calls.
Seals and dolphins are also commonly sighted on these trips, as well as the occasional humpback whale and/or pod of orcas. Highly recommended!
As well as the wildlife, Kaikōura enjoys a stunning natural setting. The town has a dramatic backdrop of steep mountains, and the rocky Kaikōura Peninsula juts out into the sea. A great walking trail loops the peninsula, and takes about 3 hours to complete
Keep an eye out for albatrosses circling overhead. A colony of New Zealand fur seals also have a favourite spot at the tip of this peninsula, where they sprawl out on beds of seaweed.
Kaikōura might be understated, but I think it’s one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand.
Lake Tekapo, in the Mackenzie region of the South Island, is one of my favourite places in the world. I absolutely had to include it in this list.
This idyllic little township is situated on the shores of a turquoise lake, framed by the Southern Alps. It’s quiet, peaceful, and surrounded by nature. If you’re looking for somewhere to get away from it all, amidst some fantastic scenery, this place would be a good bet.
The lake itself gets its brilliant colour from minerals in the glaciers which feed it. On the shore lies the Church of the Good Shepherd, and a statue of a sheepdog – a tribute to the first shepherds who roamed this area, and their trusty dogs.
Mt. John, rising from the western shores of Lake Tekapo has a path leading up to a famous observatory at the top. From here you get an amazing view out over the surrounding countryside and the mountains beyond.
Lake Tekapo is located in the world’s largest recognised Dark Sky Reserve, and has the clearest night sky in New Zealand. It’s one of the best places in the world to see the southern sky, and the Southern Lights (if you’re lucky, between April and September).
For those with the gear, I highly recommend camping out under the stars here. Drifting off to sleep under countless millions of stars is utterly magical.
Check out my guide to the best wild camping tents here.
In short… One of the best tents that money can buy is the MSR Hubba Hubba 2-person tent.
Wanaka is a pleasant lakeside town in the Otago region. Surrounded by the Southern Alps, thick forests, sunny vineyards, and the dramatic Mount Aspiring National Park, it’s a superb location for outdoors activities year-round.
Here you can hike, mountain bike, ski, kayak, skydive, fish, rock-climb, jet-boat, and mountaineer to your heart’s content.
The town itself hosts regular art and music festivals, and there are many quirky independent shops, cinemas, cafes, restaurants, and wine bars.
One of my favourite things to do in Wanaka is to walk around the lake until I find a secluded spot, to sit, read, and snooze, surrounded by nature. With the peaceful silence, mountains reflected in the lake, and the smell of flowers in the air, you’ll probably agree that this is one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand.
Situated on the shores of beautiful Lake Wakatipu, across from the jagged peaks of the Remarkables mountain range, Queenstown has the most stunning natural backdrop imaginable.
The undisputed adrenaline capital of New Zealand (maybe even the world?) is also a mecca for lovers of extreme sports.
As well as being the birthplace of the first commercial bungee jump, canyon swing, jet boat, and tandem paraglide, Queenstown is famous for its close proximity to world-class hiking, biking, and skiing.
For excellent views over the town, lake and mountains, head up to Bob’s Peak (either via the Tiki Trail hike – which takes about an hour, or the Skyline Gondola).
Queenstown is a firm fixture on the country’s backpacker trail, and can get quite busy during the peak summer season (between December and February). Travel outside these months if possible, and be sure to book accommodation in advance.
Te Anau, in the far south-west corner of the South Island, is the gateway to Fiordland National Park. However, most visitors speed through on the way to Milford Sound without so much as a second thought. I think that’s a mistake.
Te Anau is also a really pretty little town in its own right, and there are many reasons to spend a day or two here.
One of the highlights in Te Anau is a visit to the glowworm caves. After a short boat trip across the lake, you enter a series of limestone caves lit by thousands of glowworms. It’s surreal and beautiful.
Other activities nearby include mountain biking, kayaking, fishing, and horse trekking. In the town itself, there are many great little restaurants and cozy pubs.
Milford Sound & Fiordland National Park
Last but certainly not least… No list of the most beautiful places in New Zealand would be complete without Milford Sound.
Milford Sound – on the South Island’s rugged west coast – is remote, wild, and absolutely breathtaking.
It’s hard to capture the immense scale of this place with photos. The famous Mitre Peak rises almost 1,700 metres (over a mile) vertically out of the sea.
Fiordland gets between 7 and 9 metres (!) of rainfall every year, with an average of 250 rainy days per year. But fear not! This place is just as spectacular in the rain as when the weather is fine.
Rainwater feeds the countless waterfalls which thunder down from the vertical cliffs into the sea. Some are mere white ribbons against the giant black backdrop, others cascading torrents which shake the air and send spray rolling across the fiords.
Getting to Milford Sound is part of the adventure. The 119 kilometre Milford Road – one of the most scenic in NZ – links Te Anau to the famous fiord. Crossing Fiordland National Park, the scenery is epic. There are many one-way bridges and extremely tight corners, with sheer drops falling away from the road.
Streaks of white water cascading down the dark black walls of rock give the place a raw, wild feel. And every bend in the twisting, turning road reveals a new sight, each more impressive than the last.
Milford Sound is a place that you really need to see to believe. Make sure you don’t miss it.
Is there anywhere else you'd include in a list of the most beautiful places in New Zealand?
Let me know in the comments!